“When I first got back home from Afghanistan, my dad was like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to talk, we’re here for you,'" retired Marine Joe Merritt says in “We Are Not Done Yet,” a new HBO documentary produced by actor Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld,” “Casino Royale,” “Boardwalk Empire”) and directed by Sareen Hairabedian. “But it never made sense to be like, ‘Hey dad, I watched people burn to death. Also, can you pass the mashed potatoes?' Like, how do I start this conversation?”
Almost 3 million service members have deployed in support of American war operations since 2001. Of those who deployed to operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, approximately 14 percent to 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, female veterans experience military related sexual trauma at a rate of over 32 percent.
“We Are Not Done Yet” goes well beyond the aforementioned black and white statistics, however, to tell the stories of 10 veterans from diverse backgrounds and experiences, all pursuing a process of healing and empowerment together through the arts.
“Grappling with PTSD, the ‘warrior poets’ share fears, vulnerabilities, and victories that eventually culminate into a live performance of a collaborative poem under the direction of actor Jeffrey Wright,” the film’s synopsis says.
Wright, along with retired Army officer April Harris, who spent 26 years in the service, discussed the groundbreaking film, misconceptions about PTSD and the much-needed personalization of these struggles during a recent interview with Military Times.
Jeffrey, how did you get involved in this project and what was it that first piqued your interest in veteran advocacy?
WRIGHT: I went to Sierra Leone in 2001, the first war zone I ever visited, and the scales fell off my eyes. I was seeing things for the first time after taking so much for granted. While going back three or four times a year for about a 10 years, I started a foundation with a couple retired senior officers from the U.S. Army. One became a real mentor to me and started to educate me firsthand about things that, as a civilian, I only understood — or misunderstood — from a distance. So, I just became a little more aware and curious, particularly as it related to our vets. After that, I started doing these readings through a group that was using Greek tragedies as platforms for discussion on PTSD. I went down to D.C. to see one of the shows and there were some representatives from the Pentagon there, so I asked them what I could do. A few weeks later, they introduced me to Seema Reza [chair and co-founder] of Community Building Art Works, which uses arts therapy programs with vets at Walter Reed.
One more critical milestone was when I was coming back from a trip with my kids. I was at an airport in rural Colorado and there was a guy sitting and waiting for his plane in a wheelchair, a triple amputee, just sitting there by himself. I went over just to say hello and he recognized me and told me his story. He described some of the folks who would visit Walter Reed when he was there — people from my line of work — to lend support. And I just thought, “What am I doing with my own time that I can’t come down and at least show some support in my own way?” But at the same time, I didn’t want to just come down for a photo op — I wanted to do something that could maybe be a little more useful. So, when I spoke to Seema and she said that they wanted to do this piece of theater, I thought, "This is right in my wheelhouse.” So, I just put my experience in my rucksack and came down, and the film was borne out of that process.
April, what was it like having Jeffrey come in and work with you?
HARRIS: Through the entire process, he was just a compassionate civilian who gave a damn. It never felt like working with Jeffrey Wright, the phenomenal actor. He was just somebody who was compassionate, somebody who cared, who offered us a space to do our work.
Jeffrey, what was something you learned about this group of veterans that you didn’t necessarily expect going in to this project?
WRIGHT: Too many of us on the civilian side have a monolithic view of men and women who serve in the military. What was the most striking thing to me was the way they shattered those misconceptions through the incredible power of their artistry. They are a group of warriors and serious, compelling artists. That was the thing that was most unexpected. And again, the diversity of their thoughts, experiences and backgrounds, which all came together in that room, just overrode my entire understanding about what we, as a public, perceive about those who serve in the military.
With 10 different stories, diversity was a definite strength in the film. What does even one vet opening up do for others who may be internalizing pain resulting from trauma?
HARRIS: First and foremost, it tells people that they’re not alone. It was important for me to tell my story for a number of reasons. First, I owed it to the troops. They need to see a leader stand up. We’re telling troops over and over to let someone know they’re struggling, but we’re not giving them the space to do that. Now, I’ve been given that opportunity to raise my voice higher and still take care of the troops. They’re not alone.
I also need to do this as a black woman and because of the stigma that’s placed upon struggling with mental illness in my own culture. Something that could have destroyed me has instead made me a strong person, and others can do that, too. I’m not here to give advice on how each person can do it, but the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs needs to provide more options. And really, I’m holding DoD more accountable than the VA, because many of these issues could be identified prior to someone leaving the military, an environment that makes it so that we almost can’t talk about issues. Then these same people go on to have a difficult time justifying it on the civilian end.
Much about military culture, as you mentioned, is not conducive to openly expressing such issues. How do you feel the military can do a better job to facilitate communication?
HARRIS: Being victimized in the military, it’s almost like, as a civilian, I have to justify the wrongs that were done to me. It’s like I’m having to relive that victimization over and over again. Give us the space we need to communicate. I recognize the military was not designed to take care of patients — I was medical for 26 years. I know that. The military is designed to fight war. We patch you up and send you back out. If we can’t patch you up, you’ve got to go. But it’s how you’re sending us out. Send us out with respect, and respect us when we get out. We’ve lost a lot.
But I think we accomplished what we set out to do with this film. You watched it and you reached out. That dialogue has begun.
WRIGHT: One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that the first step toward problem solving is communication. And again, I’m speaking as a civilian, but it’s my understanding that when you’re in a battle, communication in great detail between your colleagues is critical. And there’s an internal battle going on for folks who put themselves in harm’s way. And if you’re not communicating on that battlefield as well, then you’re not going to solve those problems — you’re not going to win that fight. And I don’t think that burden has to be exclusive to military culture. We can all share it.
Many with little to no knowledge of PTSD were quick to characterize the Thousand Oaks, California, shooter as a troubled war vet suffering from PTSD, a dangerous narrative to those struggling with trauma. How do these blanket characterizations hurt those genuinely battling PTSD?
HARRIS: We need to stop making assumptions. There is no cookie-cutter label or treatment that can be applied. My PTSD stems from being violated as a woman. You can’t treat combat PTSD the same way you treat my PTSD. And don’t make assumptions that I can’t be productive. If we have a chance to talk earlier on, when that trauma occurs, we’d have a better chance of recovering. I can recover later, but do I have to recover when I’m homeless? Or when I have no job? Or when I’ve already lost my family?
In my situation, even though there’s a reason for my behaviors, it’s still unacceptable. There is a reason, but I have to take responsibility for my behavior. And I don’t want to be lumped into a category — PTSD is so broad and hurting people has never been an issue.
WRIGHT: I’m sitting here watching a press conference from the White House [about the California shooting]. The major obstacle that we in the civilian community face — across the political spectrum — to understanding issues relating to our troops and vets is that too often that conversation is only about political manipulation and point scoring. We’re not getting the facts from the ground. We’re not getting the perspective of the men and women who served. We’re not getting access to their voices, because their voices are being muffled by the sound of people who are using their service to serve political agendas. Until that stops, we’ll not be able to solve the generational problems that we’ve seen regarding veterans and homelessness, veterans and disproportionate suicide rates or veteran difficulties reintegrating into society. We’ll not get there. Because what we’re getting instead is too much distraction away from the real target. We’re hearing the very issues that are most negatively affecting veterans being used as political props, yet these issues are not, in real time, being addressed. And that’s something I think all of us in American society should find intolerable.
April, how did completing this film help your own healing process?
HARRIS: Had I not put my search for healing into overdrive, I would not be here today, and I wouldn’t have a relationship with my two phenomenal sons — I would not.
Healing is not just through the arts, so I don’t want anyone to think the arts are the end all, but it’s an amazing supplement to the evidence-based treatment I’ve received. While I was able to use the treatment primarily for me, the arts are something I was able to share with my family, so this hasn’t just been healing for me, it’s been therapeutic for us as a family.
April, Jeffrey, thank you for taking time to tell us these stories. “We Are Not Done Yet” premiered on HBO on Nov. 8 and is currently available for streaming.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.